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The first modern Santa Claus was a Civil War hero

Thomas Nast’s first modern image of Santa Claus, in the Christmas 1862 issue of Harper’s Weekly. (The Met Collection)
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The modern image of Santa Claus first appeared during the Civil War. Santa sided with the North.

He made his debut on the cover of Harper’s Weekly for Christmas 1862. A drawing shows a white-bearded Santa Claus, wearing a fur coat with stars and stripes. But he’s not filling stockings for the kids. Instead, he’s handing out presents at a Union army camp — and dangling a puppet with a rope around its neck. The puppet resembles Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

The drawing was by 22-year-old Thomas Nast, who was born in Germany and came to New York with his family at age 6. Nast said he based his Santa on a German version of Saint Nicholas, Pelze-Nicol. The artist later became famous for his cartoons lampooning William “Boss” Tweed of New York City’s corrupt Tammany Hall political machine.

But he initially gained attention for his drawings championing the Union cause, including the one that introduced Santa as we know him. President Abraham Lincoln called Nast the Union’s “best recruiting sergeant,” adding, “His emblematic cartoons have never failed to arouse enthusiasm and patriotism and have always seemed to come just when these articles were getting scarce.”

The Harper’s 1862 Christmas edition included another Nast drawing, titled “Christmas Eve,” showing Santa Claus and his sleigh on the roof of a house where stockings hang from a mantel and a woman is kneeling in prayer beside a bed with two sleeping children. Another panel shows her husband in a Union uniform sitting next to a tree, holding a rifle and gazing at family photos.

Nast’s elaborate illustrations were pro-Union and anti-slavery. After Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863, a Nast drawing titled “Emancipation” envisioned a brighter future for Black Americans. It shows images of enslaved people being beaten and branded, but the center picture portrays a happy Black family gathered around a fireplace with a picture of Lincoln on the mantel.

Nast’s drawings, one newspaper of the day noted, “tell more in their silent way and point to a stronger moral than could a hundred stump orators.” But they also drew “scores of threatening letters to the Harper office from the infuriated South, and Nast would have been burned at the stake had he been captured during the occasional trips he made to the front,” Albert Bigelow Paine wrote in his 1904 book, “Th. Nast: His Period And His Pictures.”

In 1864, Nast backed the reelection of Lincoln, a Republican. After the Democratic convention adopted a platform that seemed to call for peace at any price, Nast responded with a drawing called “Compromise with the South.” It shows a kneeling Lady Columbia — a precursor to Uncle Sam — weeping as a one-legged Union soldier on a crutch reluctantly shakes hands with a triumphant Confederate officer over a grave marker that reads, “In Memory Of Our Union Heroes Who Fell In A Useless War.”

Lincoln supporters distributed copies to voters. “The good the cartoon accomplished was held to be incalculable,” the New York Times wrote.

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Nast attended Lincoln’s second inauguration in March 1865. A month later, he published a drawing showing Lady Columbia grieving over the coffin of the assassinated president. The illustration was published in nearly every newspaper in the United States.

The cartoonist assailed President Andrew Johnson’s undoing of Lincoln’s Reconstruction. One multi-paneled illustration shows Johnson as a snake charmer playing a flute as two copperhead snakes coil death grips around a Black man writhing on the floor.

Nast became known as the “Father of Political Cartoonists.” He created the elephant as the symbol for the Republican Party and popularized the Democratic Party symbol of a donkey that started with President Andrew Jackson.

In 1868, Nast supported the presidential nomination of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. The artist drew a cartoon showing two pedestals in front of the White House entrance. Grant is pictured behind the Republican pedestal, and the Democratic pedestal still awaits a nominee. The caption reads: “Match Him.” When Grant won, he credited the sword of Union Gen. Philip Sheridan “and the pencil of Thomas Nast.”

In 1876, Nast backed Republican Rutherford B. Hayes against Democrat Samuel J. Tilden. The deadlocked election result was disputed after the suppression of Black Republican voters in Southern states. White Southerners threatened violence if the election was “stolen” from Tilden.

“Hotheads shouted ‘On to Washington’ and ‘Minute Men’ began to prepare to march,” John Chalmers Vinson wrote in his book “Thomas Nast, Political Cartoonist.” Amid “threats of insurrection,” Vinson wrote, Congress appointed a 15-member Electoral Commission to determine the winner.

A Nast drawing represented the Democrats as a pair of disembodied hands, one holding a gun and the other wielding a bull whip, above a poster reading “Tilden Elected Or Blood.” When the panel gave Hayes the victory by one electoral vote in early 1877, Nast drew a Republican elephant in bandages and on a crutch with the caption, “ ‘Another such victory, and I am undone’ - Pyrrhus.”

Nast turned against Hayes when he agreed in the Compromise of 1877 to withdraw federal troops from the South, ushering in Jim Crow segregation and disenfranchisement. An 1879 Nast cartoon attacking literacy tests in the South shows an African American man sitting next to a shed where an semiliterate White man is writing on a bulletin board, “The blak man orter be eddikated afore he kin vote with us wites.” The message is signed “Mr. Solid South.”

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The cartoonist had his critics. Nast’s “brutal, meat-ax style” represents “all that is course and rough and low, without a trace of the good in humanity or a ray of light,” the Nashville Daily American editorialized in 1876. “His cartoons have not proved a happy adjunct to politics.”

Meanwhile, Nast expanded his image of Santa Claus in annual Christmas issues of Harper’s Weekly. The jolly old man grew chubbier, his beard grew longer, and he began wearing a fur-lined hat. Nast’s Santa also kept up with the times. After the widespread introduction of telephones in the early 1880s, a Nast cartoon shows Santa talking to a child on a phone from his workshop at the North Pole. “Hello, Little One,” he says.

Nast and Harper’s parted ways in 1885. By the 1890s, the cartoonist’s popularity had waned. A financial setback nearly bankrupted him. In May 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt, a Nast fan, appointed the artist consul general at Guayaquil, Ecuador. Nast caught yellow fever there and died in December at age 62.

After his death, a brief controversy arose over whether Nast had created the modern image of Santa Claus or the image had been around since the early 1800s. But history has overwhelmingly credited Nast. In a letter to the New York Times, biographer Paine wrote: “Mr. Nast himself never doubted having been the first to present in picture the merry, fat, fur-clad, pipe-smoking Pelze-nicol of his childhood.”

Ronald G. Shafer is a former Washington political features editor at the Wall Street Journal.

Read more Retropolis:

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The Christmas Truce miracle: Soldiers put down their guns to sing carols and drink wine

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